The Shabbat immediately preceding Pesach is called Shabbat ha-Gadol, the big Shabbat, most probably due to the custom of listening to countless rabbis in countless synagogues explain at great length all the intricate rules of Pesach. But there are other explanations. The Mateh Moshe (a halakhic work by Rabbi Moshe ben Avraham of Przemy, who died in 1606, a student of Rabbi Solomon Luria) explains that the name comes from the words of the haftara (Malachi 4:5): “Behold, I send you Elijah the Prophet, before the coming of the great and awe-filled day of the Lord” (lifnei bo yom H’ ha-gadol ve-ha-nora), “who will turn fathers’ hearts toward their children and children’s hearts towards their parents.” Another tradition explains that the actual Exodus from Egypt took place on a Thursday (as determined by the Seder Olam), the 15th of Nisan, which would put the date of the selection of sheep (Nissan the 10th) on the previous Saturday, which was really the first time the Israelites followed one of God’s commandments as a people!
It also happens that due to the intercalation of an extra month this year, daylight savings has also arrived, so this Shabbat really does last very late. And, since we can’t do any actual cleaning work, maybe that will give us a chance to think a bit more about Pesach than we normally can, due to all the detailed preparations we throw ourselves into during the run-up to the seder.
Did you ever think about what Egypt looked like the morning after the Israelites left? I know what my house looks like after a seder or two, and how much needs to be put away and how many sacks of garbage we have generated. Having lived in New Orleans, I witnessed – at the end of each parade – how the “Krewe of Sanitation” would follow the last of the floats and the bands and the vendors, sweeping the streets clean, spraying them down with water, and preparing them to return either to normal or to preparedness for the next parade. It was my pleasure and privilege to wave and cheer these people on (and, coincidentally, to be sprayed with cool mists of water as they passed by), without whom life would not have been able to proceed; for it is quite openly acknowledged that the impact and thus success of a Mardi Gras season is most accurately measured by the tonnage of garbage collected in its wake.
This is no small matter.
We tend to think of “the big show” as being the most crucial and critical moments: when Evel Knievel either jumps the canyon or doesn’t, when the shot heard ’round the world is either fired or it isn’t, when the attack does or doesn’t come at Pearl Harbor so that the day will or will not live in infamy. It seems to us that these moments are the most important, and in most ways they are.
But the months of negotiations leading up to the grand opportunity, and the denouement that follows that very public moment ““ those times and the efforts of countless people shape those great moments and the people who become famous or infamous because of them. There are always so many more people behind the scenes than the “great man” theory of history allows for, that to ignore their contributions and influences risks skewing the historical record towards pure mythology.
But looking at the Torah portion this morning, Acharei Mot, insures a corrective for such a skewed view. The Yom Kippur rituals are commanded “after the death of Aaron’s two sons, when they came near before God and died.” According to the Torah, we should never see Yom Kippur without our view being conditioned by the deaths that preceded and necessitated it. There is never atonement without the need for relieving the impurity that accompanies death, and death never strikes our community without a subsequent means of getting through and past it. Passover, in which we relive the oppressions of Egypt, never occurs without the descent to Egypt (a wandering Aramean…) nor without the final Exodus to freedom. Time flows from past to future through the narrow passage of the decisive present. Even if the lights and the cameras only operate in this moment, the true flow of events encompasses people and processes we can only imagine; the work they do makes all the difference between a true moment and a mere “phoning-it-in” performance.
As we read in the middle of Acharei Mot, if we kill an animal to eat but do not subsequently pour its blood to be covered upon the ground, we will be considered as if we had shed blood, as if we had murdered. Even the future course of events can change the value of an event long since past.
Maybe that is precisely the gift we are presented with this year. Quite unusually, we have a juxtaposition between Shabbat ha-Gadol and Acharei Mot. We are bidden to think of both Passover and Yom Kippur, the death of those whose presence could not loom larger before Aaron’s eyes had they been alive and all the lambs of Egypt being selected and groomed in obedience to this first public mitzvah. It presents us with the opportunity to ““ thousands of years after the Exodus ““ decisively determine with our own life choices that God actually did right in freeing us from slavery. If we tell the story with conviction and gratitude, we justify the good that was done for us in the past. Should we choose the path of the Rasha, the wicked (or contrary) child, we will be spitting anew in God’s face and in the family traditions that have carried this miraculous moment down through the ages to be deposited on our doorstep.
As we sit down to our seder in a few days’ time, I hope that we can choose well. I hope that as we sit down to an extensive (and expensive!) subsistence level meal featuring the bread of the poorest ““ when our destiny actually flutters between being enslaved and being free ““ that we will choose to be grateful, as if we personally will leave all the destruction of Egypt behind. We sit at our table as the sky darkens and death stalks Egypt’s firstborn children all around us. As the stalks of grain ripen and the maw of emptiness caresses the doorposts and the lintels of this house, at this very moment we have everything we need: our loved ones and the spirit of those who are absent, our bubbe’s matzah ball recipe, and the presence of a needy passerby. We need to seat ourselves at the table, to prepare the momentum to go forth in wonder. It is, indeed, a decisive moment.